Breakfast with the New Speaker

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr.; is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

A LESSER man might have displayed some temper or a little spite - certainly some pique. But not the new Speaker. He had been splashed by smear and innuendo, some of which he knew would cling to him despite the total untruths involved. But over breakfast with upwards of 50 journalists, Tom Foley was winning an A-plus for his forbearance and for turning the other cheek. One hard-boiled veteran muttered, ``What a perfect gentleman....'' Others hearing the remark nodded their heads.

Mr. Foley says: ``I'm not talking about achieving a bland pablum sort of thing. I want tough debate and hard fighting - but with people still being able to get along together afterward.'' That sounds like what the President has been saying since he offered his hand to Congress in his inaugural speech.

Will the Republicans in Congress, tasting blood after bringing down Jim Wright and Tony Coehlo, end their relentless attack - much of which has been a legitimate effort to unseat the corrupt but which in recent days had deteriorated into what President Bush called ``disgusting?'' A writer in the GOP camp had resigned after blackening Foley. Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater had apologized - after receiving a verbal spanking from Mr. Bush.

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But GOP political consultant Ed Rollins at a breakfast with the same reporters' group the previous morning, had indicated that the Republican pursuit of Democratic rules-shaders or rules-breakers would go on unabated. He deplored the memo that smeared Foley. But he said he saw nothing wrong in unveiling corruption and that this would go on. He added that the Democratic incumbents in Congress were so secure that it would probably take the disclosure of wrongdoing to allow Republican challengers to push them aside.

So into this arena of passion and heat rides big, quiet, likable and, yes, peaceloving Tom Foley. He likes Republicans and Democrats alike. Years ago I was at a world affairs conference set up by Jerry Ford. Congressman Foley was the only Democratic public figure in sight. Why was he here? He explained that he was a close friend of Mr. Ford's.

Columnist Mary McGrory describes Foley as ``a notoriously decent man who manages to be both magisterial and as friendly as everybody's favorite parish priest.''

There is a brand new style in the Speaker's position. Foley sees his work as that of ``endless consultation'' with House members. He talks about his support of the President. He thinks the nation can and will move forward through compromise. His will not be the iron hand of Sam Rayburn. He says precisely that. He will apply the art of persuasion.

Foley won't go so far as to say that Wright had justifiably met with the axe. He is still loyal to his old boss. But he's not going to make some of Wright's mistakes, such as coming back from a conference with the President and calling the President a ``liar,'' - as Mr. Wright said on more than one occasion of President Reagan.

What will Foley do to lower the temperature in Congress? He wants higher ethical standards. He knows the public is demanding this. But he wants reform measures to come from the House members. He isn't about to ram anything down the throats of his colleagues. He did say that he looked favorably on the end of honoraria if it could be coupled with a hike in salary.

One reporter at the breakfast said of Foley's performance: ``I thought he was ponderous.''

We had just seen the same old, sweet, reasonable Foley who used to get top grades from the press for ``candor'' and ``freshness.'' He had naturally been more cautious. After all, as Speaker he has to watch his words.

Other journalists also expressed reservations. He had been ``too general.'' He ``obviously wouldn't stand up to the President.'' Some wondered whether the very same Democratic colleagues who liked Foley so much would appreciate his compromising nature. Obviously, a new, tougher scrutiny - and judgment - of Foley had set in.

But Foley has something going for him that may well allow him to overcome all adversities: His almost unbelievable popularity. There's his thick skin. He holds no grudges. He tends to impersonalize differences. His disposition is always sunny.

No other Speaker of my memory has possessed such a vast reservoir of good will. A prediction that would be shared by many Washington observers: His may be a rocky road; but his will likely be a success story.

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